Archives For Introspection

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When you get to a certain age, most writers will consider, at least momentarily, penning an autobiography. Often, aware the effort will invite charges of vanity, they will opt to call it a memoir. Whatever the label, the result is the same.

Writers are faced with the question—and they alone can answer it—as to whether or not there is any value in the preservation of notes about their life journey.

I would argue that there is a clear benefit, even when no one else will read it. Self-reflection, in and of itself, enriches one’s life. Even if it is painful, it can be therapeutic. And, since we’re still alive as we examine our past, time remains to rectify some of the mistakes we have made.

This very process of looking at our lives invites us to question our motives for recording these stories. And, if we’re considering merely to praise ourselves, it would be best to abstain.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many “normal” lives can validly serve as an inspiration to others. (I don’t presume my own effort would fit into this category.)

Here is the reason why I’m actually contemplating assembling some notes for a near-the-end-of-my-earthly-sojourn document. It just might be of interest to some of my descendants. I have often wished to have just such a jewel written by my own ancestors.

Putting myself in the place of my great-grandchildren, etc., I suspect some of them and their own grandchildren might be curious about an ancient progenitor. In fact, the more such records, the fuller the picture they stand to gain of their lineage.

The key, I think, to writing a worthwhile memoir is honesty. If we share our challenges and failures, the volume will not only be more interesting, if may offer our descendants encouragement in their own struggles.

As a man vulnerable to the sin of pride, I’m cautious about proceeding. I pulled this disarming contrast from a book review written several years ago by theologian Carl Trueman.

Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this.

One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.

Autobiography need not be so, as this volume [A Change of Heart] by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several people during my life whose names would be familiar to you. But, God be merciful, I prefer to be an Oden rather than a Küng.

C.S. Lewis was a man like the former, “humble, fascinating and important.” Yet, despite the accolades he received from some quarters, he remained blissfully unaware of the fact that God would continue using his words to inspire others so many decades after he joined his Lord in Paradise.

A Worthy Exemplar

Lewis resisted writing about himself. Not out of a false modesty, but due to a desire to maintain personal privacy and a genuine sense that his life was neither particularly inspirational nor unique. Nevertheless, if it were possible that sharing about his life could help others, he was willing to do so.

His works are sprinkled with autobiographical commentary. His vast correspondence also provides great insight into his life. In 1955, he wrote a traditional autobiography, primarily to explain his conversion.

He entitled it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. As he begins in the Preface:

This book is written partly in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity and partly to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about.

He describes his approach, noting how it differs from what readers might expect.

The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less “Confessions” like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau.

This means in practice that it gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on. In the earlier chapters the net has to be spread pretty wide in order that, when the explicitly spiritual crisis arrives, the reader may understand what sort of person my childhood and adolescence had made me.

When the “build-up” is complete, I confine myself strictly to business and omit everything (however important by ordinary biographical standards) which seems, at that stage, irrelevant.

I do not think there is much loss; I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting. The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never written before and shall probably never write again.

I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.

A Naked Autobiography

As fascinating as Surprised by Joy is, there exists another volume in which the mature Lewis bared his soul as have few others. When he lost his wife, Lewis experienced a profound sorrow that he described in A Grief Observed. So vulnerable was his writing, that Lewis published it under a pseudonym.

In 1988, Madeleine L’Engle penned a Foreword to the book, which now appears under Lewis’ own name.

In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.

No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love.

Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.

Lewis was an exceptional writer, but I daresay that his life was little more amazing than your own. Certainly, Lewis’ life was no more precious to God than yours is.

I encourage you to consider writing (at the appropriate moment) your own memoir. This is particularly important if you have family who may be interested. But even if you don’t, consider writing.

Just remember to follow Lewis’ example and try “to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.”

narcissusThere is a very important mental health tome that describes psychological disorders in detail. It’s called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Since the American Psychiatric Association is constantly discovering new mental ailments—and they occasionally recognize that previously unhealthy mindsets and behaviors have become so pervasive they can no longer be considered aberrations—the DSM requires periodic revision.

The current authoritative version is DSM-IV-TR, or DSM, fourth edition, text revision. That means that if you were diagnosed with a defect according to the third edition standards, you may now have a clean bill of health. And, for those of you whose diagnosis is still included in DSM IV, don’t despair; they are currently consulting about version five, and who knows what psychoses may soon become “normal.”

I had to study these things during my seminary training, for my counseling work as a chaplain and civilian pastor. I was thinking about the manual recently as I pondered the spirit of Narcissus that seems to hold sway in our age. Like C.S. Lewis, I understand there is value in studying Greek and Roman myths, as many contain seeds of Truth. (Lewis’ appreciation for myth is most evident in Till We Have Faces, which is a reworking of one ancient Greek tale.)

Narcissus, of course, is the mythological Greek who was so consumed by his own handsomeness that he perished because he was unable to tear himself away from gazing at his own likeness. (The image above was painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in the sixteenth century.)

Narcissism, which echoes his name, describes the unbridled vanity and self-concern (i.e. selfishness) that motivates growing numbers in our individualistic and hedonistic world. Since narcissism has become so rampant, the DSM now concerns itself only with “pathological narcissism.” That distinction will probably remain, even if Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is eliminated from the fifth edition as a distinct illness, as many have recommended.

God Save Us from the Narcissists

Pathological narcissists are terrible indeed. Their characteristic arrogance, envy, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy make them unhealthy members of society. In fact, large numbers of sociopaths and psychopaths are also narcissists.

But here’s the problem. At the rotten core of the disorder we find a putrid seed that negatively affects many of us who appear otherwise to be so normal. The source of the corruption is, in part, sinful pride.

Let’s take a look at the “diagnostic criteria” for NPD which confronted me when I first studied DSM III. (Perhaps you may wish to skip this section, since modest hints of some of these traits may strike close to home.) I’ve added my own introspective comments in italics.

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81, Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

(1) Reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, or humiliation (even if not expressed).

— I’ve never “raged,” but it’s embarrassing to be criticized in public

(2) Is interpersonally exploitive: takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

— Never. I won’t tolerate manipulation–either as the manipulator or the manipulatee.

(3) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as “special” without appropriate achievement.

— Have I told you lately about being Thespian of the Year when I graduated from high school . . ?

(4) Believes that his or her problems are unique and can be understood only by other special people.

— Not this trait, I’m aware everyone in this fallen world is faced with challenges . . . many of them worse than my own.

(5) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love.

— I do daydream about accomplishing special goals, although I never lusted after power and I accepted the facts about “beauty” long ago. I have, however, found ideal love, and we’ve been married 37 years!

(6) Has a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment, e.g., assumes that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must do so.

— I’m the opposite. I always pick the longest and slowest line to stand in.

(7) Requires constant attention and admiration, e.g., keeps fishing for compliments.

— If people weren’t so frugal with compliments, I wouldn’t need to.

(8) Lack of empathy: inability to recognize and experience how others feel, e.g., annoyance and surprise when a friend who is seriously ill cancels a date.

— Nope. I really do care about others. That’s the reason good clergy and caregivers often suffer compassion fatigue.

(9) Is preoccupied with feelings of envy.

— Well, what about those cases where the person doesn’t deserve the honors they’ve received . . ?

There, I feel much better, having made a public confession of my almost-narcissistic human self-centeredness.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis warns that “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

When we admit, instead, that there remains much in our soul that is base and prideful, we’re on the proper path. The course that leads to a rejection of Narcissus-in-us, and the embracing of what is precious in our neighbors and our world, is the road that leads to contentment.